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    Discovering Singapore’s green allure

    Patricia Engelhorn

    Exotic, diverse, lush. The garden city of Singapore nurtures culture, fine dining, and an environmentally oriented plan for the future

    In the heart of Singapore, a thick fog hangs in the air. It is cool, damp and somewhat windy. From a densely overgrown mountain covered with orchids, ferns, and a 30-metre-high waterfall rushes down and somewhere in the distance, a monkey cries. 

    A stark contrast from the outside, stepping inside Gardens by the Bay raises a shiver. The football field-sized ‘Cloud Forest’ is set to
    a temperature of 23 degrees, which is pleasantly cooler than natural tropical heat. The goosebumps persist, not due to climate, but instead because of the awe-inspiring natural spectacle that unfolds in front of us. 

    Almost otherworldly, the rainforest has emerged in the middle of the city on artificially reclaimed land. Inside there are winding jungle paths leading to giant greenhouses, crystal-clear waterways and Supertrees, which reach up 50 metres high. Connected by hanging bridges, these trees generate electricity for lighting and cooling by collecting water, while plants grow on their trunks. The area, completed about ten years ago, is a microcosm amidst skyscrapers where birds chirp, natural scents waft, and water splashes. Gardens by the Bay  is considered a tourist attraction, a CO2 reducer, and the most spectacular project in the long-term plan to transform Singapore into a lush garden city.

    In fact, no Western metropolis is anywhere near as green. It all began when Lee Kuan Yew, the first Prime Minister of the city-state, wished for a Garden City and began planting trees and creating parks in the 1960s. Since then, ambitions have grown, aiming to turn the Garden City into a city within a garden. Singapore is on the right track. ‘Green building’ has been mandatory since 2008, and vegetation has been consistently integrated into architecture. A striking example of this is the stylish shopping mall, Design Orchard which stocks fashion and accessories from local brands. On the roof of the mall, there is a public garden with bright parasols, trees in oversized concrete pots, cascading plants over steps, a café, and an open-air amphitheatre. Not too far away,  the luxury hotel‚ Pan Pacific Orchard, is a green-architectural feat. People stand in awe with cameras drawn in front of the 23 story building with its distinctive Jenga-block architecture, lush columns covered with vines, tropical terrace with waterfall, and many vertical green gardens. “Pan Pacific Orchard is a new prototype for tropical high-rise architecture,” says Schirin Taraz-Breinholt, a member of the board of the architecture studio WOHA, which is behind the project and is known throughout Asia for its sustainable construction. Taraz-Breinholt moved to Singapore almost 20 years ago and cannot imagine working elsewhere. “For architects, it is very exciting to live in a city that is changing so rapidly, where so much is desired – and implemented,” she explains. “Global issues like density, metropolis, world population, and climate change are very present and immediately acted on here. We know exactly what we are doing and why we invest so much energy in environmentally friendly, human-friendly construction,” she adds.

    But Singapore is not only green and tropical, it is also full of exciting contrasts. The city is also filled with elegant colonial-era buildings, old Chinese shophouses, avant-garde mega-malls, temple complexes and bustling market halls. Those who don’t mind exploring by foot can easily walk from Little India through to the Arabic-influenced Kampong Glam district to Chinatown, almost seamlessly transitioning from one societal-microcosm to the next.

    Somewhere in between, is the cultural centre, Theatres on the Bay. Here, two concert halls lie like a sliced durian by the water in front of tall glass towered Central Business District. But even among them, where one would expect only international financial institutions and anonymous office buildings, there is a small tea house, a dim sum snack bar, or a vegan taco stand, in front of which bankers and lawyers stand in line with security personnel and local street cleaning staff. The natural multiculturalism and coexistence of people from various social backgrounds is visible even where money reigns.

    Almost six million people live in the city-state area, officially divided into four ethnic groups: Chinese, Malays, Indians, and others. Among the ‘others’ are 1.7 million Western expats, about half a million people from Bangladesh and Pakistan, 200,000 Filipinos, and nearly 40,000 Japanese. This eclectic mix shapes Singapore more than the – often ridiculed – sense of law and order. Yes, Singapore is clean; graffiti and chewing gum are prohibited and the subway runs with minute precision. However, this does not prevent people from having fun. “There are certain rules,”  says the young vendor at the taco stand, but within these rules, there is a lot of freedom. And a gigantic variety.”

    Art lovers find satisfaction in many museums and galleries: The National Gallery Singapore is a must-see. It resides in the colonial buildings of the former Supreme Court and City Hall, and not only houses the most extensive collection of Southeast Asian art in the region, but also artworks by prominent international artists, from Ai Wei Wei to Mark Rothko.

    You also can’t visit Singapore without sampling its world-famed culinary offering. There are around 5,400 restaurants, plus nearly 14,000 licensed hawker stalls which are indispensable in the local gastronomy scene. To the point, their cuisine has been recognised as a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage since 2020. Local foodies debate for hours about where to find the best hokkien mee (fried noodles with seafood), the most authentic nasi lemak (a Malaysian dish with coconut milk-cooked rice), or the juiciest crab bee hoon (steamed giant crab with rice noodles, spring onions, ginger and chilli).

    Visitors will face the dilemma of choice with this vast selection. For breakfast? If the hotel buffet seems lacklustre, visitors can hunt out a unique local specialty in the nostalgic Ya Kun cafés: Kaya, a creamy spread made from boiled coconut, eggs and sugar. You’ll see old men eating it with butter, toast and tea in the morning, as they pour over the local newspaper, The Straits Times. The culinary highlight of the city is considered to be the cuisine of the Peranakans – the descendants of immigrated Chinese and indigenous Malays. Known for their spicy and delicate dishes, try fish head curry or steamed chicken with lemongrass and nut sauce. In addition, there are elegant French restaurants with three Michelin stars, cheerful Italian pizzerias, Indian, Indonesian, and Vietnamese eateries which serve oysters, sushi, and fried fish scales.

    In the gastronomy scene, green thinking is also gaining ground. In a city where street food and takeaways are deeply rooted in cultural habits, it is easy to assume the inevitable plastic waste. Instead, you’ll frequently observe biodegradable packaging and recyclable disposable cutlery. Simple hawker stalls serve their soups in beautifully crafted vintage porcelain bowls. And instead of using corrugated metal as sun protection, shade-providing trees are planted outside. All of this aligns with the aspirations of the city planners working for the government. Their ambitious, Green Plan 2030, aims to make Singapore the world’s leading, sustainable, yet growing garden city. The far reaching plan includes planting one million additional trees and creating many new parks, ensuring that every resident’s trip from home to the nearest green space takes a maximum of ten minutes. A journey taken by foot that is.

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